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I fall into “food ruts” from time to time, during which I cycle through the same few recipes. Lately it’s been a focus of mine to breathe some new life into my recipe rotation and explore new ways to cook with old staples, especially tofu.
Eric and I have been watching a lot of Korean television these past few weeks under quarantine, and it’s inspired me to look a little further into the culture and cuisine. I’ve only had authentic Korean food two or three times, back when I was vegetarian in college. Since going vegan, I’ve been intimidated by the thought of trying to find something without fish, eggs or butter at a Korean restaurant, so I haven’t visited one yet.
An online friend recommended Maangchi’s recipe for dubu-jorim (spicy braised tofu) to me, and I decided to adapt the sauce recipe to serve with fried tofu. I dug out the bag of gochugaru (Korean red pepper flakes) from the very back of my pantry, where they’d been collecting dust since the last time I made homemade kimchi. I was excited to find a new use for this super flavorful, slightly spicy ingredient.
Ingredients for Red Pepper Tofu
Tofu: Any variety works for this recipe, actually — even silken. We’re frying it in very hot oil until a golden brown “skin” has formed, making it delightfully chewy and slightly crisp around the edges, and soft and custardy on the inside.
Vegetable oil: You can use canola, peanut, corn, or safflower oil.
Gochugaru: These Korean red pepper flakes can be purchased online or at your local Asian market. They’re full of flavor and not too spicy, so if you’re a spice fiend you may want to also add in some cayenne pepper or extra chili flakes. If you can’t get your hands on gochugaru, you can try substituting in chili powder (but note the flavor will be different).
Onions, garlic and green onions: These form the aromatic, savory flavor base for the sauce.
Red bell pepper: This is optional, but I like the sweetness and slight crunch it adds to the dish; it contrasts well with the texture of the tofu. If you like extra spicy food, you can sub in some jalapeños or serrano peppers.
Sesame seeds and sesame oil: Use the roasted seeds and toasted sesame oil, if you can! Both add an amazing depth of flavor to this dish. The seeds add a nice little crunch to every bite.
Soy sauce and vegan oyster sauce: Our umami-givers! You can find mushroom-based vegetarian oyster sauce at most Asian markets or online. Kikkoman even makes one that I’ve seen at my regular Kroger store! It’s become one of my staples for stir-fry recipes! If you can’t find it, you can substitute in an equivalent volume of hoisin, or just use more soy sauce (but use a little less, since soy sauce is saltier than the oyster sauce).
Brown sugar: A hint of brown sugar rounds out the flavor of the red pepper sauce. I typically use brown sugar in most of my stir fry sauce recipes.
Sesame Red Pepper Tofu
- 1 12 oz block medium, firm, or extra-firm tofu
- 1-2 cups vegetable oil for frying
Sesame Red Pepper Sauce
- 1 tablespoon sesame oil
- 1/2 medium white onion finely diced
- 4-6 cloves garlic minced
- 1 red bell pepper chopped
- 6-8 green onions thinly sliced, white and green parts separated
- 2 tablespoons toasted sesame seeds
- 2 tablespoons gochugaru Korean red pepper flakes
- 1 tablespoon brown sugar
- 2 tablespoons soy sauce
- 2 tablespoons vegan oyster sauce
- 1/2 - 1 cup water
- Cut tofu into cubes or slices. Place on a clean tea towel or paper towel to blot off excess liquid while you prepare your remaining ingredients.
- In a small bowl, whisk together sesame seeds, brown sugar, soy sauce, vegan oyster sauce, gochugaru, and 1/2 cup water. Set aside.
- In a skillet or wok, heat at least 1/2" vegetable oil to 375-400°F. (I highly recommend using a thermometer; if the oil isn't hot enough, the tofu will not brown or crisp, and it will retain more oil.)
- Fry tofu for 3-4 minutes per side, or until golden brown and crisp. Remove to a wire rack or a paper towel-lined plate. Work in 2-3 small batches to keep the oil at a consistent temperature. Also, be extremely careful when lowering tofu into the oil! Tofu contains a lot of moisture and tends to splatter a bit. This is why it's important to press out the excess liquid first.
- Set fried tofu aside and heat sesame oil in a large skillet or wok over medium-high heat. (I usually pour the used frying oil out into a glass jar, wipe down my wok with a paper towel, and stir-fry in that to avoid using an extra pan.)
- Stir-fry onion, garlic, red bell pepper, and the white parts of the green onions for 3-5 minutes, until the mixture starts to brown.
- Add in fried tofu, then pour in the sauce ingredients, stirring constantly. The sauce should immediately start to bubble and thicken. Depending on how saucy you want the dish, you can add an extra 1/4 - 1/2 cup water and continue stirring until thickened.